TOWN halls were promised a rare funding boost yesterday, as they prepare to take on the crucial task of helping people avoid poor health - and an early death.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced ring-fenced budgets worth £5.45bn across England for the next two financial years, to improve public health.

From April, local councils will have a duty to take necessary measures to improve the health of their population, with the demise of primary care trusts (PCTs).

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The government believes they can be more successful in tackling vast inequalities in people's health, that the existence of the NHS since 1948 has done little to narrow.

Mr Hunt said councils would enjoy an average funding boost of 5.5 per cent from April, compared with current funding - with some receiving ten per cent more.

He said: "Too many people die too early from diseases that can be prevented. I want more people to be able to look forward to an independent and active old age.

"By putting local authorities in charge of public health, we are giving them the power, freedom and the funding to tackle the issues that blight their local areas and help improve the lives of their local communities.

"Improving the health of local people will be at the heart of everything they do - from social care to transport, housing, planning and environment."

The figures showed that most North-East councils will receive smaller increases next year, and in 2014-15, of 2.8 per cent.

However, Mr Hunt said independent experts had ensured funding was "specifically targeted, for the first time, at those areas with the worst health outcomes"

One Conservative council - Westminster, in London - has already triggered a row by threatening to cut the benefits of obese and unhealthy people who refuse to take exercise.

Smart cards could be used to track claimants' use of leisure centres, allowing local authorities to dock housing and council benefit payments from those who refuse to carry out exercise prescribed by their GP.